For Boy 1, who truly believes in the magic of dragons.
I awaken drenched in quickly cooling perspiration from a night sweat and my heart pounding in excitement, or maybe fear. Beside me Jason stirs, one hand outstretched like a heat-seeking missile constantly pursuing bodily contact. What will he do when I am gone? Whose warm body will replace mine when this insidious disease finally claims my last breath? Will his hand find only an icy void where I once lay? Will he lie in loneliness, morosely recalling midnight conversations from the dreamy days when we thought we were invincible?
“Mummy? Mummy?” My mournful introspections abruptly shatter with a child’s frantic cries. Lurching to my feet the room spins, and I furtively swallow the rising taste of bile, my bitter, tangy, constant companion.
Jason stirs, and begins to move with sleepwalking slowness, sluggishly throwing back bedcovers.
“Kath, get back into bed, I’ll go to him.” An overwhelming surge of frustration engulfs me. There is no excuse for this snail-crawl pace. No physical infirmities limit his motion, though he is sick at heart.
“Go back to sleep, it’s me he wants. Please, just leave me be to do this as long as I can!” Temper quickens movement in my painful muscles as irrational emotions help win the physical battle to make my legs work. With martyred sigh, Jason reclines into the pillows, resigned in the face of such belligerence. I angrily manage a reasonable imitation of a confident walk along the dim hallway to my only child’s room.
I enter to see him sobbing and all resentment vanishes, his upturned, tear-stained face the only part of him visible from under the bedcover tent. The night terrors he had left behind at four have resurfaced with a vengeance at six. He fights his faceless fears nightly just as his mother wages daily battles for life.
“Shh, sweetheart, Mummy’s here.” I stumble awkwardly to his bed, tripping over furry toys and setting off manic announcements to the lowly lit room, “Tiggers love to bounce!” It is a wonder any semblance of slumber lingers under his distress. “Baby, Mummy is here, quiet now, Mummy’s here.” Murmuring constant reassurances, I carefully climb into the small timber bed, sliding the diminutive bundle of my son across to give space to lie. We spoon, his tiny back pressed against my chest as it has been since birth. Only now, instead of being cushioned against my nurturing breasts he is cradled against a myriad of scars. With the innocence of a child, he cannot see the changes. He only knows Mummy is here and he is safe. A contented sigh escapes his lips as he slips back into dreamtime, devout in his conviction Mummy will slay any scary monsters. Other than the broken sobbing, my child has not spoken a word since I entered the room. I ease my aching frame into a more comfortable position and prepare for a long, sleepless night. Discomfort lessened by the joy of gazing at my baby’s peaceful face, a pleasure I am terrified I will lose too soon. I kiss his slightly clammy brow, and cradle him closer, savouring his warmth and inhaling the unique scent that is Thomas.
The glare of the morning sun awakens me to another day. My son sleeps, arms splayed and legs tangled in tyrannosaurus-tinted linen. I stretch my stiffened limbs, and painstakingly move to sit on the edge of the rumpled single bed, taking care not to disturb my miniature bedmate.
“Hey, you.” My husband stands in the doorway ready to face his working life in suit and tie, unrecognisable from the weekend Jase of faded rock tee shirts, stubble and old, worn trackies. I drink in his image, pausing to imprint it into my subconscious so it is there to recall during my long day. He waits patiently for a response as my eyes devour him.
“Hey, you.” This is our secret language from early university days when all was about keeping it cool and casual. When we remained totally oblivious to the fact we were never destined to be a disposable affair. “Hey you”, translates from “I love you” to “Are we okay?” In the breathtaking minutes after Thomas’s rapid arrival into the world, it quietly voiced our avalanche of raw emotion. Now it is a phrase to cover all we cannot speak of, all we dread. A code to strengthen us when this dreadful disease begins to erode our love as it eats away at my flesh.
“So?” He flashes the boyish grin that captured my heart the very first day. Sometimes I feel time has stood still for him, he is my own Dorian Gray, and I am the portrait in the attic. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
“Fine. I’m a big girl now you know.” I manage a crooked smile to support my words. The great pretender as I am not all right, I do not think I will ever be again. The appointments terrify me and all I want is for him to be by my side to hold my hand and reassure me all is fine. The reality is this cannot be as our savings pour into the bottomless pit of paying for pointless treatment. Futilely we attempt to slow the ticking clock, trying to decelerate the progress of this illness and buy a little time.
The bed stirs beside me, sheets kicked aside as my reason for prolonging life springs into wakefulness.
“Morning monster, sleep well?”
“Mummy, I dreamt about the dragons again. Mummy, do you want to know about my dream? Mummy, Eldred is watching us you know. He was in my dream again.” His amber eyes light up and my heart clutches at his obvious excitement. With a pang, I recognise the same exhilaration of my own early hours. I can only hope his reality is not the disappointed awakening mine is.
“Was he big and shiny with teeth all sharp?”
“No, silly Mummy. Eldred is a good dragon, he isn’t scary at all.”
“I’m glad pumpkin, we need someone nice to look out for us.” Pulling him into my arms, I tickle the small spot on his stomach where I once blew wet, sloppy, baby raspberries. He erupts into childish laughter as Jason comes over to squat bedside and join in the revelry.
“What about Dad, don’t I watch out for you guys?” An undertone of seriousness colours his words, even though the tenor is jovial. It is hard for him to feel so helpless in the face of my suffering.
“Daddy!” I watch my son launch into his father’s arms. Focused on me he had not noticed his father in the doorway, now he is intent on making the most of Daddy’s presence. Two dark, curly heads bob in unison as they tussle.
“Careful Thomas, Daddy has his good work clothes on.”
“Its fine Kathy, I can always change if I need.” Chastened, I stand back and watch the manly display as they wrestle on the carpet. Once upon a time, they would have pulled me in to join them, but now caution taints every physical connection. I loathe my frailty; abhor the betrayal of my body, the cloud of pain shadowing every movement I make. I hate all that sickness has taken from me. Each joyous squeal, every giggle from both young and old slices through my heart, I have lost my laughter.
“Okay soldier, off me. Time for breakfast, it’s a school day.”
“Nope, don’t awww Dad me. Time to move it.”
I stand slowly, “Okay, who wants Weet Bix and who wants toast?” My stomach protests at the mention of food.
“I’ll do it.” Jason tries to rescue me again. I stop him with a look, he knows this is not an argument he can win. The time will come soon enough when his kingdom will expand to usurp my kitchen realm, but not quite yet. I gather my subjects, and lead them as agilely as I can into my domestic domain.
The sterile waiting room always invokes an emotional response. I often wonder if they have deliberately created a cold, barren space to combat the intense feelings generated in the clinic. I am alone and insignificant sitting here in my padded chair, flicking idly through a fashion magazine and pretending not to watch the other patents enter and exit. I will never understand the rationale behind keeping magazines full of women with complete, perfect bodies at a place where all feel scarred and damaged. Intermittent shattered sobbing of despair breaks the sterile silence. We do not risk looking at each other in this limbo land.
“Mrs Williams?” My turn in the torture chamber comes too quickly.
The sombre receptionist scowls my way, and growls “Come through.” I yearn to add, “Said the spider to the fly” but do not think she would appreciate my neurotically obscure attempt at wit, so I simply smile and slide past her to the doorway. I long for Jason with his satirical humour.
The doctor stands with his back to me, intently perusing the printouts of my future. Millions of razor blades twirl inside my knotted stomach as I attempt to stop the compulsive twitching of my fingers. A nervous giggle breaks from my lips. He looks up and I have become a fly trapped in his piercing spider glare.
“Sorry, flash back to a childhood game. Church steeple, open doors, here are the people?” I hold up my entwined digits with their ragged, raw nails and wiggle them as I babble. I hope he is jaded enough to be blasé about nonsensical ramblings from patients. I watch as his thin, dry lips begin to move rapidly spilling forth the unwanted medical results. He frowns over black-rimmed spectacles.
“Jason not with you? Right, well then. I guess we’d better get on with it. I have the results of…”
Before this nightmare, I had always daydreamt about medical specialists who bore a startling resemblance to George Clooney. Unfortunately, mine is the image of Peter Sellers. In the early days, Jase and I regularly joked about yearning for ER’s strong, competent Dr Doug Ross and the poetic justice of landing Doctor Strangelove. Not now. Now I pin my hopes on the good doctor and his cache of medical tricks. All I need is just a little longer, no matter that the days are painful and tiring. Time for my child to have the mother who adores him and to create the memories he will hold warm in his heart to get him through when things are tough. The resurrected morning image of my two men tussling and tumbling happily together on the floor makes me smile. I am wrenched back into stark reality by one word. Palliative.
“I’m sorry, what?” His unusually sympathetic gaze scares me.
“Sadly Katherine, the test results leave no doubt. The cancer has metastasised beyond the original site into your bones, the lining of your stomach and excessively into the liver. I don't feel at this point you can tolerate any further treatment, nor would it be of significant benefit to you. I will be referring you to palliative care to manage the pain. I know this is not news you were ready to hear. I am so very sorry.”
I cannot hear, I cannot breathe. Encased in a thick, solid block of ice I sit, frozen in disbelief as my executioner talks on. I need to leave; I have to get up and get out of here now. It is my turn to prattle as I agitatedly gather up my cumbersome bag, stand and make excuses. I must escape. This appointment never happened.
“Katherine? Would you like a glass of cold water? Katherine? Can I get you something?” He moves as if to restrain me, or maybe he is merely trying to reassure but I flinch from his touch. I cannot bear for him to lay a hand on me. You want to get me something, then get me my life back.
“I’m sorry, but I really have to go. I am late to pick up Thomas. I have to pick up Thomas. I have to go now, yes right now.” The room is shrinking, and no matter how fast I inhale, I cannot get enough oxygen into my lungs. I trip over the chair leg in my haste, as a startled Doctor Bellington follows in my wake, stuttering questions to quell my flight. A mass of mouths form surprised circles as I burst into the crowded waiting room.
Escaping into the bright sunshine, I stumble to the carpark entrance and double over gasping for air. I want to vomit.
I can feel the thwoop, thwoop as his majestic wings sweep upwards and downwards in giant brush strokes. The constant, rapid beat of his heart is drumming against my clenched calves and I tighten my hold on his silver, scaly neck, gripping for dear life. My burnished bronze hair billows out behind me, thick and lustrous blowing blissfully in the turmoil of rushing air surrounding us. We are flying. The night lights below glimmer like a million tiny candles, guiding our way. A myriad of diamonds reflect from my dragon’s skin, whilst shimmering above us, the stars illuminate the skies. I am free and the world is mine to go where I will, wherever I choose. We fly over small continents in quickly passing moments. I am content. I am happy.
“Muuummy!” I am snatched rudely into wakefulness on some level partially aware this yell holds no terror, no desperation. It is a scream of triumph, pure joy. Ineffectively I attempt to throw back the anchored bedcovers, but before I can summon the strength Thomas explodes into the room. He leaps into the icy void where Jason once lay, jiggling and bouncing our bed. His energy exhausts me.
“Mummy, mummy. I flew! I flew on my dragon!” The whole room seems to quiver with his excitement. He pauses only to catch breath.
“Mummy, it was Eldred, he jumped into my dream! Told you he is magic. He took me lots and lots of places.” He flashes the gap tooth smile I love so much followed quickly by a fleeting, pensive frown. Something is on his mind. We wiggle giggling down into the covers, hiding from the world in the dead of night. Billowing sheets a cave, the bedside light a flickering campfire. This is our time for exchanging confidences; it is not as difficult to talk about the hard things in the solitude of early morning. However, tonight our tales are happily full of daring dragons and glittering jewels.
“My dragon is magic too, sweetie. Her name is Hildegard and she has shining jewels all over her humungous body. She’s really big, and so strong.” My subconscious wandering has left me with a buoyant lingering sense of freedom.
“Eldred is more magic, Mummy. He doesn’t need girly jewels. He flies real fast. Like a rocket.” Thomas pauses, and chews on his bottom lip the way he always has when lost in thought. “Mummy?”
“Do you really believe in Eldred?” His earnest, tawny eyes hold me captive, pinned.
“I believe there are a lot of things we don’t know for sure in this world, Thomas.” Pupils widen in wonder as he considers the possibilities. He pensively worries his pouting lower lip again.
“Mummy. I know some secrets. Dragon secrets. Real magic.” This last declaration is delivered in hushed, reverent tones. He pauses, and sighs deeply before continuing with a whisper.
“Mummy. Eldred is so magic he can fix up the bad bugs inside you. He told me he could.”
“Oh baby.” My heart breaks into a million pieces in the face of my child’s steadfast belief in miracles. My faith had been lost from the moment the term palliative was introduced. “It’s not that easy darling; the doctors have tried all sorts of magic to make Mummy feel better. Sometimes even magic cannot help.” He stubbornly shakes his head.
“No. Dragon’s save people. That’s what dragons do. He could fly you to heaven, Mummy. He would be very careful. Then God could fix you.”
“What are you two up to under there?” Sheets drawn back, we sit blinking owlishly in the glare of the lamp. My husband leans in the doorway; dark circles rim tired brown eyes, curly hair matted from fingers running endlessly through, a face grey with exhaustion. No more is he my Dorian Gray. I know he has been sitting in the darkened, cold kitchen staring sightlessly into the night. My poor, poor love. I smile and catch his eye before I speak.
“Hey you.” He tries to smile at our private code. What does he see now? Is it as I was when all was well or do my ailing looks pierce his heart? I know what the mirror shows, I have grown ugly in my illness. I avoid reflections but sometimes when walking past I catch an unguarded glimpse of who I have become. Then I cry.
“Hey you. Shouldn’t you two be sleeping?”
“Sleep? Bah, sleep is very overrated. We have been dragon adventuring!”
“Eldred is going to fly off with Mummy, Daddy.”
“Oh, so a dragon is my competition. I think I need to have a talk to this Eldred.”
“No silly, Eldred is taking Mummy to heaven.” I see the jerk of Jason’s head as this unexpected missile hits home. Our concerned, solemn gazes link across the room.
“Sweetie, Mummy is still here. I’m not flying off with anyone just yet.” I do not want to crush all his dreams; he will need an element of magic in his life when I am gone.
“Room for Daddy in this hideout?” Carefully, trying not to jostle, Jason climbs into the queen size bed beside Thomas. Our son provides the buffer to be not too close. It has been an eon since he could bring himself to hold me. All we seemed to do in those first weeks after my death sentence was hold each other, now it is as if he is scared I will break if he touches me. I am scared I will break if he does not.
As my anger has abated, his has grown.
“Don’t you love Mummy anymore?”
Jason’s face loses the little colour it had. Thomas is a perceptive little man, he doesn’t miss much. He is closely watching his father’s reaction.
“Of course I love Mummy, why on earth would you think I don’t?” Jason is drowning in emotional turmoil. I cannot save him, I cannot save myself.
“You don’t kiss Mummy anymore Daddy. Are you mad at her?” Our eyes meet across the top of our son’s head. I can read my husband’s thoughts as clearly as if they were my own. He is mad at me, he is furious at the whole world. Rage consumes him. We desperately need to talk, but not with little ears listening.
Besides, this night waking time is reserved for fun.
“Oi, you two, no serious talks allowed in the cave. Now whose coming back under for some dragon training discussions? My Hildegard has a huge flatulence problem I need to rectify.”
“What’s fatnuence, Mummy?”
“Mummy means farts, kiddo. Who is Hildegard?”
“Mummy’s dragon. That’s gross Mummy! “
“Come on you two delicate little petals, I need some advice. Surely you blokes would be the farting experts!” Giggles and guffaws bounce around amid loud, protesting denials, and the darkness of our lives is lifted a little. Time enough for reality in the harsh light of day.
My heart is breaking as I watch him struggle, how hard it is for him, how sad for all of us. We are talking once more, there is much to be said and so little time. I am content in the knowledge my husband will get through when I am gone, now we both see life will go on. I have told him I hope he will love again. He denies he could. He does not see as I do that great love begets great love.
Some days I lie around in an opiate-induced trance, unable to move. As the weeks pass, these listless, lifeless periods are becoming more and more frequent. The dose of morphine pumping into my body to hold back the pain is getting stronger and stronger. I am at the point where peace and the desire to be free of pain are enticing me away from life. I have no strength left, I crave serenity. It hurts even to breathe on the bad days.
My son lies with me most evenings. We spoon, his robust young body cradled against my frail, skeletal frame. His only desire is to be close to me, but I insist on his daily routine. I tell him I need him to go out into the world, as I cannot. He brings me back precious tiny tokens, snippets of normalcy. My bedroom is overflowing with fragrant blossoms, remarkable rocks and vibrant, colourful drawings of dragons; always of dragons. We talk, and though he knows I cannot return once I leave, he does not cease insisting the dragons will help to ease my way wherever. My child, my glorious child. Jason assures me he will keep me alive within my boy’s mind and heart, but I know memories fade. All I hope and pray is that when he thinks of me as the years pass, he will still feel the warm glow of my love surrounding him. My son, my Thomas, how can I bear the agony of leaving you? It surpasses the worst I have endured on this journey, and yet I cannot fight on any longer. Be strong and brave, my beautiful boy. Remember, Mummy loves you.
I can hear the thwoop, thwoop as he comes closer and closer, spiralling lower and lower. He is so beautiful, a myriad of jewel-like colours cover his majestic wings and body. This time he is coming, there is no stopping him. He is coming for me. Tears run in rivers, melding with sweat on my face. I can feel the moisture flowing, seeping into the cracks of my bloodied, split lips. A surge of turbulent air from flailing wings cools my fever-ridden torso, pushing adrenalin into dehydrated veins, pumping pulsating shocks of life into my fragile body. The beating of his wings grows louder and louder, thump, thump, until my whole being pulsates with his rhythm of life. The closer he comes; the further the beat slows. As my final, deep sigh of bliss leaves my lips, he sweeps me gently into his strong yet tender grasp. A beloved little voice murmurs sweetly into the ear of my earthly shell: “Mummy, Mummy, I was right. The dragon saved you.” It is the last I hear, his precious, small voice fading into the distance as the agony recedes and I am swept, cradled safely within the dragon’s embrace, into the brilliance of the light.